This is not a film. It’s a two-hour long action sequence.
That said, there is a thin storyline that weaves through the kaboom-kapow clusterfuck of high-octane action. The ideas behind Mad Max: Fury Road is more substantive than the story, which, at its core, contains an undeniably feminist message.
Set in the not-so-distant future, patriarchy has raped the earth into a wasteland. There is nothing left but dust blowing in the wind. The only hope lies in the possibility that women take back power, heal the earth, rebuild the soil, and give birth to new life.
Mad Max is a crazy hermit who wanders the desert without purpose. The only time the voices in his head are quieted is when he meets Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron) and her band of women on a mission. He follows them and aids in their battle to reclaim the resources horded by an evil patriarch named Immortan Joe.
Immortan Joe lives in a giant skull-shaped tower, surrounded by an army of “War Boys,” a grotesque group of skinhead-like youth whose minds and bodies have been tattooed with an ideology that says Joe is their God. He imprisons women as sex slaves and “breeding stock,” hooking them up to machines and milking them like cows.
In a move of defiance, five of the most youthful and beautiful among the harem write on the walls: “WE ARE NOT THINGS” and escape with Furiosa. The “wives” of Immortan Joe are a powerful feminist portrait of women risking everything to escape the bonds of sexual and matrimonial slavery. However, these characters are also all played by women who look like models who didn’t change costumes from their Victoria’s Secret desert photo shoot and are male-gaze-pleasing, clad in skimpy togaesque attire. The only “wife” character who doesn’t look like a typical model is played by Zoë Kravitz, who wasn’t recruited from the modeling industry because she is the daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet.
So while these young women escaped from being sex objects in the story, they’re still relegated to that status on screen, having a wet t-shirt party in the desert, not permitted to put on clothes like their male counterparts, who are geared up in combat boots and protective biker leather.
That said, there are female characters who are not sex objects, notably, our star, Furiosa, with her no-nonsense clothing and shaved head. In a refreshing move, the storyline features several elderly female characters who show up on motorcyles, are total badasses and matriarchal separatists. They come from a tribe called the Vuvalini. Theron as Furiosa steals the show while the titular male character takes a supportive role in what is essentially her story. Max exists, in this story, merely to help the women enact their feminist insurrection. Writer Jessica Valenti aptly quips that the film could be titled “Mad Max: Feminist Ally.”
Hilariously, Men’s Right’s Activists have called for a boycott of the film, claiming they were duped by fire and explosions in the trailer into thinking it was a “straight-up guy flick” only to find and undercurrent of “feminist propaganda.”
Vagina Monologues writer, Eve Ensler, was hired as a consultant for the film to help create believable and empowered female characters. (Take note, Hollywood!) She describes how she and director George Miller aimed to make the female characters retain their “inherent womaness,” while still being strong. As Ensler puts it, “They’re tender and loving, and still fierce.”
Did they succeed? Yes, and no. I think they pushed the “women are strong because they are sweet and loving” angle a little too hard. It’s quite heavy-handed in its visual coding of the women as vulnerable, angelic, soft things, placed in contrast to the hardness of the men. Ultimately, the young women still perform the golden rule of movie-making for “strong female characters” — they can have some power, as long as they’re still sexy, thus unthreatening to male viewers.
The film also goes easy on the delicate male ego by leaning on the theme of feminine mercy and forgiveness for male violence. A wayward War Boy, named Nux, hitches a ride on their truck and later becomes their ally, thanks to the tenderness of one of the wives, who connects with him through feminine nurturing and, of course, beauty. He is constructed as deserving of sympathy, also a victim of patriarchy who is forced to achieve masculine ideals — as women, we are meant to feel sorry for him and to help him recover.
Mad Max did succeed in presenting the feminine as powerful in its ecological message, which takes a refreshingly sane and rational perspective. At the end of the world, when patriarchy and capitalism have destroyed the planet and all the life-giving soil has been turned to dust, will “masculine” values like exploitation and domination get us anywhere? No. It will be “feminine” values like empathy, healing, nurturing, and sustainability that save humanity. It will be through planting trees and letting them grow.
All in all, Mad Max does deserve some of the feminist cred it’s garnered. However, a warning: watching this film is an utter assault on the senses. Perhaps it’s because I watch mostly black and white films and haven’t been to the cinema in while, but watching this film in 3D… The word, “hellish” comes to mind. It’s rated R for “disturbing images,” and rightly so. Much of it is plucked straight out of the horror genre with random grotesqueries pummeling you every second. The action is incessant and has a visceral intensity to it that is just scary. I’m not sure when we became so desensitized that it became necessary to be entertained through such graphic violence…
There are so few feminist films that exist and even fewer that are major Hollywood blockbusters. I like the fact that this movie exists and did enjoy aspects of it, but I wouldn’t want to watch it again.
But hey, who knows how many doors for new female-lead action films have been opened by the success of Mad Max. I have a feeling that we haven’t seen the last of women like Furiosa, and when Hollywood delivers, I’ll be lining up for my ticket.
Susan Cox is a feminist writer and erstwhile academic in Philosophy. Follow her @Blasfemmey.